Facing the Impossible

There’s no shame in failing to do the impossible. You’re not going to travel faster than the speed of light and you’re not going to be the one who invents the perpetual motion machine, and you’re certainly not going back in time to get the thing you got wrong back then right this time. Time flows in one direction. There are no do-overs, even in Punxsutawney. That was the premise of that Bill Murray movie – if you could do the impossible you could, eventually, get everything right, but no one can, which is too bad, even if that really would be nice. Except that being forced to go back in time and live the same day over and over and over again, until you finally get it right, turns out to be a nightmare. Sonny and Cher each morning didn’t help either. It’s best to avoid the impossible.

Never tell anyone that. We’re a people who like to say that we can do the impossible – bring it on. Tell an American that something is impossible and they’ll set out to prove you wrong. Nothing is impossible – as long as you have the right attitude, as Norman Vincent Peale had been telling America since 1935 or so – the middle of the Great Depression. That was something to cling to in an awful world, perhaps the only hope people had at the time. Things did get better, but not because of anyone’s attitude. Much had to do with public policy, and monetary policy, and then a worldwide war that meant everyone had a job and a paycheck – but the message didn’t change. Peale’s 1952 book on the Power of Positive Thinking was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for years. Even in good times Americans will believe anything. The shy and misshapen young girl in Altoona who didn’t become a movie star out here in Hollywood, and the rather dim and goofy young fellow in Cleveland who didn’t end up as President of General Motors, were somehow convinced they had only themselves to blame – they hadn’t been thinking the right thoughts, the really positive thoughts.

Why should they? There was, after all, no way of disproving the contention that nothing is impossible if you think the right way. It could be, maybe, somehow, that you’re the problem, really, not circumstances – and thus the modern self-help movement was born. Nothing has changed since. Think the right thoughts, or get right with God, or both, and you can do or be anything you can imagine. It’s your own fault that you’re not rich and famous. It’s not the system or anything like that. As least that’s what the fat-cats on Wall Street will tell you, as that Occupy Wall Street crowd mills about in the streets below their windows.

It’s a great scam, until there’s a critical mass of folks who see that it often really is the system, and the reality of circumstance. You can be told that you have only yourself to blame one too many times. You can be told to take some damned personal responsibility and stop whining one too many times. What happens then is a bit of rethinking of the terms, possible and impossible. Much of what is said to be impossible is really what is simply unlikely. The really impossible always remains. Nope, you’re not going to pitch for the Yankees, ever, and you’re also not going to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, or even richer than that, like Mitt Romney. The system and circumstances won’t allow it. You’re impossibly stuck until both those change, and that’s not likely. Think all the positive thoughts you want. Knock yourself out. You’ll still be a sucker. The self-help books are in the aisle on the left, and we accept all major credit cards.

The problem here is clear. The power of positive thinking was a shallow and silly and finally dangerous idea about how things work, because it denies objective and verifiable reality, and it metastasized in odd forms over the years, even in foreign policy. In 1997, William Kristol and Robert Kagan started up that Project for the New American Century – basically a Washington think tank set up to work out what America should be doing in the world now that the Cold War was over. That sucked in all the big-gun neoconservatives, and Dick Cheney, and the answer to what we should be doing now was that we should remake the world, by military force, into what we wanted it to be – a world of representative democracies with totally unregulated free-market economies based on the accumulation of vast wealth by the few right people, and where no one picked on Israel too. We were the only superpower that had been left standing. We might as well do something useful with all that firepower. No one else, really, had any power at all now.

It’s just that remaking the world by military force into what we wanted it to be was, from the start, impossible. No one had ever quite pulled that off, but we were soon off to transform the Middle East, and then the world, starting with Iraq, as no one really cared about Afghanistan. That place was a minor matter at the time, even if had that nickname, the Graveyard of Empires. Didn’t anyone remember anything? No matter what the British did in Afghanistan their decades of occupation and vast sums spent came to nothing – save for Doctor Watson’s sore knee that he mentions a few times in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The British left the place unchanged, as did the Soviets. Their decade there ate up vast resources for no geopolitical or economic gain at all, and may have contributed as much to the collapse of the whole Soviet Union as much as anything Ronald Reagan did back then. They got drained dry and the lesson was always clear – don’t start a land war in Asia, and steer clear of Afghanistan in particular. No one wins there. No one can. It’s impossible.

Ah, but we’re Americans – we do the impossible. We have the right attitude, that positive attitude which makes the impossible possible. That Project for the New American Century might as well have been founded by Norman Vincent Peale himself – it was operating on the same principles. We can do or be anything we can imagine. Anyone who disputed that was a whiner, if not a traitor, if not secretly French – or so we were told for a decade.

Right, and after a decade in Iraq we’re gone, completely, with nothing to show for it but our dead and our debt. The Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds are still at each other’s throats and Iraq is continuing to align itself with Iran and Syria, the really bad guys. Saddam Hussein is gone. That’s about it. We didn’t remake the Middle East, starting with Iraq. We didn’t even remake Iraq all that much, save for all the craters and the infrastructure in ruins, and their dead too. We tried the impossible. What were we thinking?

And now it’s the Graveyard of Empires:

President Obama, eager to turn the page after more than a decade of war, said Friday that beginning this spring American forces would play only a supporting role in Afghanistan, which opens the way for a more rapid withdrawal of the troops. Though Mr. Obama said he had not yet decided on specific troop levels for the rest of the year, he said the United States would accelerate the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghans, which had been set to occur at the middle of the year, because of gains by Afghan forces.

Mr. Obama also made it clear that he planned to leave relatively few troops in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014, saying those forces would be narrowly focused on advising and training Afghan troops and hunting down the remnants of Al Qaeda.

“That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had over the last ten years in Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said after a meeting with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, at the White House.

We’ve moved things up – combat ends and training the Afghani forces is all we’ll be doing, starting pretty much now. We’re winding down our involvement in Afghanistan rather abruptly. It’s a matter of understanding that there’s no way to do what is actually impossible:

Mr. Karzai raised no public objections to troop cuts, saying he had obtained two important concessions from the United States: the transfer of prisons housing terrorism suspects to Afghan control, and the pullout of American troops from Afghan villages this spring. Brushing aside questions about residual American troop levels, Mr. Karzai said: “Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and beyond in the region.”

That’s putting a brave face on it, and Karzai also said he would push to grant legal immunity to American troops left behind in Afghanistan. We couldn’t get that guarantee from Iraq, so we really could stay there. Karzai knows better. Our generals are the problem:

Obama’s signaling of deeper troop cuts to come appeared to run counter to the approach favored by Gen. John R. Allen, the senior American commander in Afghanistan. Two American officials said in November that General Allen wanted to retain a significant military capacity through the fighting season that ends this fall. Other military experts raised concerns that the United States might forfeit some of its hard-won gains if it moved to shrink its forces in Afghanistan too quickly.

Yeah, that’s an issue, but what have we really gained, and for what? This war has pretty much disappeared from the news because it’s so hard to see the point of it all. Romney didn’t run on the idea that, as president, he would pour more troops into Afghanistan, and kick out the Iraqi government and pour more troops in there too, and then invade and occupy North Korea. He knew there’s no appetite for that sort of thing anymore. Obama had always talked about winding down these wars, and he was never really challenged about that, save for some derisive snorting from John McCain. The public has had enough of impossible tasks, although that disturbs Fred Hiatt, who heads the editorial board at the Washington Post. Hiatt has this to say about why the public is fine with intervening less often in foreign countries:

Traditionally two philosophies have fueled it. One sees the United States as a moral exemplar but believes we aren’t obliged to solve the world’s problems.

The other is skeptical about America’s moral standing to impose its will, believing that more often than not it has used its power to exploit other people on behalf of U.S. corporations or other selfish interests.

Today a third strand entwines those two: a sense, fueled by the deep U.S. recession and China’s rise, that America is a declining and overextended power that can no longer afford to lead as it has in the past.

Kevin Drum flags that and is having none of such nonsense:

There is, pretty obviously, a fourth strand that Hiatt is either stubbornly unaware of or else simply chooses to ignore: that there are lots of interventions that the United States simply can’t undertake successfully. What’s more, the kinds of interventions that crop up most frequently in the modern world are precisely the kind we’re least likely to succeed at.

Some things are just impossible:

In the last decade we’ve launched two disastrous foreign wars. They weren’t disastrous because of mismanagement – though obviously they were mismanaged – they were disastrous because their ultimate success depended on extensive postwar nation building in an alien society. And despite David Petraeus’ best efforts, that’s something we simply aren’t able to do. It might not even be possible to do in the modern era, when controlling tribal rebellions via periodic salutary massacres is frowned on.

Consider Afghanistan. We’ve now been there for over a decade. Every two years or so, the administration in charge has conceded that previous efforts were misguided and announced a new, more deeply thought-out strategy. These strategies always sound plausible and the people in charge always seem dedicated and capable. Nevertheless, none of them have worked. Three years ago, Obama implemented the biggest reset of them all, sending in more troops, and then still more, all under the command of a general thought to embody the very best of what we’ve learned about counterinsurgency and nation building. This new strategy hasn’t worked either. It hasn’t come close to working. By the only test that matters – what would happen if we left? – it’s been an utter failure. If we leave now, within a year Afghanistan will be all but indistinguishable from the Afghanistan of 2001.

This isn’t because America is declining or overextended. It’s not because the U.S. Army is incompetent. It’s because we’re trying to do something nobody knows how to do.

A scam can only go on as long as there’s no critical mass of skeptics, and now there is one:

Anyone who’s been paying attention for the past decade knows this. Anyone who’s been paying attention should, by now, be profoundly skeptical of using military force to reshape the culture of the Middle East. If the goal is solely to win a quick military victory and then leave, intervention might occasionally still be worth considering. But the truth is that this is seldom a useful goal in the kinds of conflicts we’re most likely to encounter these days.

Hiatt writes as if it’s still 2001 and we haven’t learned any of these lessons yet. It’s inexplicable.

Fred Kaplan – the fellow who wrote The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War – has a bit more on this:

Obama spun the news as a victory lap. “It will be a historic moment,” he proclaimed, “another step toward full Afghan sovereignty.” That’s one way to put it.

When one reporter asked if our accomplishments in this war had been worth all the bloodshed, Obama recalled the reason we intervened in Afghanistan in the first place – the 3,000 Americans killed on Sept. 11, 2001, as a result of an attack that al-Qaida had planned on Afghan soil. Our “central goal” ever since, he said, has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida while also bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. Mission accomplished.

But this answer was misleading. It sidestepped the fact that, at the end of 2009, Obama sent an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, a surge of nearly 50 percent above the 68,000 already there – and that he did so not to go after bin Laden and al-Qaida (a task that could have been handled with far fewer forces) but rather to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy, at least in the cities, particularly in the southern districts. This strategy involved not only killing and capturing bad guys but also helping to reform the Afghan government and providing the people with basic services – in short, nation-building.

Let’s see. If the goal is solely to win a quick military victory and then leave, intervention might occasionally still be worth considering. Obama simply framed this as a quick intervention, or what should have been a quick intervention. Had there been a long war? What long war? Hey, forget what I had been saying all along!

This was a neat trick, which Kaplan frames this way:

What Obama didn’t mention is that this surge and this strategy were not a success. He’d treated the strategy as an experiment; he gave it 18 months to work, and his generals assured him that would be enough time for the Afghan military to take the lead in a majority of the country’s districts, even though some of them knew very well it would take longer. They gambled that enough progress would be made to convince the president to give them more time and more troops. They gambled wrong. After 18 months, almost to the day, Obama announced that he would start pulling out all 33,000 surge troops – and not replace them with any new ones. This too he publicly presented as a victory, and by the same rationale: bin Laden had been killed, al-Qaida decimated, Taliban foot soldiers routed. But the goals of the surge – the goals of the counterinsurgency strategy – had not been accomplished. Obama simply – and wisely – rejected them; the experiment was over; he wasn’t going to double down.

When something is impossible it’s best to recognize that. Rereading Norman Vincent Peale won’t help. This wasn’t going to work, and then there was our partner there, moody and flaky Karzai, and the whole situation too:

The problem wasn’t so much Karzai as the politics, the demographics, even the terrain of Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency doctrine, which Petraeus had long promoted and which Obama provisionally endorsed, holds as its premise that insurgencies rise when the local government loses its legitimacy among the population, often because it fails to provide vital services, justice, or something else that the people demand. To win an insurgency war requires not just killing and capturing bad guys but helping the government regain legitimacy – which, in turn, would dry up the people’s support for the insurgents.

If the problem there was eighty percent political and twenty percent military then we were doomed by many factors Kaplan discusses – “corrupt government, a largely rural and illiterate population, a bordering state that serves as a sanctuary for insurgent fighters” and so on.

Some saw this:

During the behind-doors sessions that Obama and his top national-security advisers held over Afghan-war policy all through the latter half of 2009, Vice President Joe Biden was the only one in the room who argued that counterinsurgency wouldn’t work: It would take too long and cost too much; the American people would lose patience. It was better, Biden argued, to focus on attacking al-Qaida and Taliban soldiers along the Afghan-Pakistani border – and on training the Afghan security forces, so they can carry on the fight after we leave. The generals argued that this wouldn’t work, that we also needed to change the conditions that created the insurgency. … Secretary of State Hillary Clinton further argued that the American people would support the war if results were achieved.

Clinton and the generals were right in theory, but Biden turned out to be right in practice.

Crazy Uncle Joe won the day. It turns out he was the one who wasn’t crazy. He knew what was impossible. It’s better to deal with a difficult reality:

Are the Afghan soldiers and police ready to take on the burden, not just in 2014 but, as Obama announced today, this spring? It’s unclear. But for too long now Karzai has been allowed to play a game, not just with Obama but with George W. Bush before him. He has been convinced – by the talk and action of these presidents and their military commanders – that the United States has more at stake in the war than he does; that he can therefore keep playing his domestic power games, and abetting his network of corrupt ministers and district officials, and we won’t do anything about it.

Back in 2009, Obama announced when the pullout would begin at the same time that he announced the surge, as a way of telling Karzai he had to get serious about reform. Karzai didn’t take it seriously. Now he must. Whether it’s too late, we’ll soon see.

That’s dealing with the possible, and there’s no shame in failing to do the impossible. Anyone would fail. The shame is in being foolish enough to think that nothing is impossible in the first place. Sure, have the right attitude. Think the right thoughts, or get right with God, or both, and you can do or be anything you can imagine – but sometimes God is up there laughing his ass off. He did give us brains.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Facing the Impossible

  1. Madman says:

    “…sometimes God is up there laughing his ass off. He did give us brains.”

    I’d really like to think that you are right here — but then, I remember Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Bishop Romney …………

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